Last week, Bristol Palin spoke publicly about the experience of becoming pregnant outside of marriage at a young age.  Among other things, she said that motherhood is difficult, and that she is very thankful for a supportive family.  She also said that abstinence from sex is an unrealistic universal standard.

There has been a lot of ink spilled since the interview, and I am mildly surprised by many of the comments. Many people say that they had also failed to abstain from sex until they were married, but that they also sincerely regret that failure.

There are now reports that abstinence only programs are almost completely ineffective.  Palin herself had subscribed to the virginity pledge, and many of the people I’ve heard on the radio also said that they had participated in formal programs designed to delay sex until marriage. 

I started wondering what makes the church’s teachings on chastity effective.  While there are many LDS people who find the law of chastity to be a real challenge, Mormons as a subset of the population are almost unique in the number of people who succeed in remaining chaste until marriage.   

I think that our practice of delaying dating until at least age 16 has a lot to do with it.  I also think that the way we do youth interviews and temple recommend interviews is useful.  And our culture tells us that relationships are meant to last, so that also might help to avoid the cul-de-sac of shallow, hormone-based relationships.

Part of effective living is learning how to live without regrets.  I’m grateful that the church is not only true in a metaphysical sense, but also in the sense that it is often so pragmatically useful.   

P.S.  Before you comment, please note that this is a conversation about what enables LDS people to live the law of chastity.  It is not a place to offer your opinion about anyone else named Palin, her fitness as a mother or candidate, or the names of her children.  If you feel an urgent need to do any of those things, please visit one of the millions of other blogs where such a comment would be welcome.

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  1. I believe that it is a result of their being social consequences. Loss of opportunity for a mission, temple recommend, the embarrassment of confession, and the possibility of church discipline, etc. There are extraordinarily high costs for such action in the Mormon Church.

  2. I think what the church has going for it in regards to chastity is the belief that sexual immorality is 2nd only to murder and denying the Holy Ghost in seriousness. That’s far more motivating than the idea that you might get pregnant and of avoiding STD’s. This doctrine in turn creates a good deal personal desire and social pressure to remain pure and not have to tell your future spouse that you’re not a virgin. Indeed, I remember many conversations at BYU in which people would debate the question of whether you should have to tell your fiancee or not.

  3. J., yes, there certainly is a high cost attached to unmarried sex among us. However, I’m wondering if that sort of cost/benefit rational thinking is what is going on inside those fogged-up car windows on a Saturday night.

  4. Bridget Jack Meyers says:

    Does anybody have a link to a study showing how well Mormons succeed at saving sex for marriage over other people? Not that I’m questioning you Mark, I’m just curious.

    I think that the LDS focus and emphasis on marriage in the temple is probably helpful towards motivating people to wait until marriage, since getting married there has very specific rules against premarital sex and getting married outside of the temple carries a certain degree of cultural stigma. I’ve had my share of Protestant friends, even evangelical Protestants, who simply decided not to wait till marriage and moved in together prior to the wedding. People may frown on it, but depending on the pastor and the local church that they go to, it probably won’t change their wedding day and in fact people will be eager to see them get married quicker so that they’ll no longer be living in sin.

    I wish us evangelicals had a better way of discouraging such behavior. Temple marriage has its own problems so I’m not saying I wish we had that, but it seems to be at least a somewhat effective motivator towards getting people to live the law of chastity.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I think part of it is how ubiquitous the expectation of chastity until marriage is in Mormon culture. It is a cultural trait or expectation.

    I remember what it was like to be a teenager as if it were yesterday. I remember having all those hormones surging through my body. And I suspect that if I ever had a realistic possibility for sex, I would have taken it. But my social life revolved around other Mormons, and there never really was such an opportunity available to me. So I think the culture plays a big role.

  6. Culture does play a big role. As a young teen, I had LDS friends, and the opportunity was just not there (often) to even go near the line of being ‘bad’- and the pressure from my friends to make wise choices was a good thing.

    Later on, as I moved away from my LDS friends and fell in with the flaming leather-jackets biker bad boys, the opportunities to be ‘bad’ were overflowing, and without the gentle pressure from my ‘good’ firends, it was downright easy to make poor moral choices.

    I had the opportunity, and I took it.

    Perhaps if the opportunity had never arisen, my choices would have been significantly different.

  7. Good point about social pressure. Is this perhaps, one of the reasons our activity rates are abysmal among singles? They move out of their peer groups?

  8. I started wondering what makes the church’s teachings on chastity effective. While there are many LDS people who find the law of chastity to be a real challenge, Mormons as a subset of the population are almost unique in the number of people who succeed in remaining chaste until marriage.

    Do we have figures for that or are we making stuff up? The only useful barometer that I can think of outside of actual research is the frequency with which our church leaders talk about a subject. As long as they keep talking about it, I guess Mormon youth continue having a problem with it too. The frequency may be lower than with other subsets. I think that may have to do with our population size. I think it also has to deal with the fact that many essential programs of the church require chaste living that few Mormons will want to incur the cost of losing those programs (like a mission, or even taking the sacrament).

  9. Mark, I grew up in a culture where having sex when you were a teenager was the “normal” thing to do, so of course this is the route I took. But even when I did it, I felt like there was something big missing in my life. The physical act in itself is a release but then it is over and you are with this person who is not the person you want. I, for one, always had this vision of myself with the perfect woman, just she and I united against the world. But that is not what I achieved.

    Well, a few decades later I discovered the Church, converted and then knew there was a God. I somehow knew (I guess it was through the Holy Ghost) that something better was expected of me, that I was expected to remain chaste and control my impulses. This was not something that I was taught, although there were such teachings available. It was something I just grew to know.

    So, before I met my wife I had adopted a different standard, and there was no question that I would not break the implicit promise I had made. My wife and I were worthily married in the temple.

    So, what happened? Well, before I joined the Church I was in a different culture that expected premarital teenage sex, and so that is what I did. I turned off the nagging feeling that said this was not the way I was supposed to act. And as I gained a testimony, and knew there was a God and knew what He expected of me it was actually relatively easy to change that standard.

    So, based on my personal experience, I would say that a complete testimony that God lives and is watching you is a crucial element to remaining chaste. Once I knew He was there, I could not have been able to live with the thought of disappointing Him in that way. How do we help our teenagers get that testimony? There are of course many who fail, but it seems the Lord has set up a system where kids will not make the same mistake I made in complete ignorance. They are baptized at eight years old and get the Holy Ghost, who is going to be whispering to them loudly on the correct direction to take. Then, if they continue to go to Church they presumably have good teachers and leaders and parents who will keep on reinforcing the message the Holy Ghost is giving them. Hopefully that will work and build a true testimony. That, it seems to me, is the secret of our success.

  10. history shows that in the early english colonies there wasn’t any sex before marriage but that there was an unusual amount of babies born a month or 2 early yet at full weight.

    because of religious pressure it was inconceivable that people had sex before marriage it just didn’t happen. I’m sure it doesn’t happen among the truly devout but how about the more ‘liberal’ mormons. especially in areas where young people just go to church because their parrents/friends make them go. how well do they really follow all the rules. it certainly would be interesting to see any studies about it. But then again, how are you going to measure something like that. asking people in sacrament meetings to raise their hand if they had sex before marriage?

  11. I think Kevin hit on a key point. If you are hanging around with or dating people who are trying to live up to the same standards you are, it’s easier to keep those standards. When you are hanging around with or dating people who are constantly trying to get you to lower your standards, it’s very likely that eventually you will.

  12. There is probably more current data, but here is some materials with sources.

  13. My nonLDS impression is that you all get married younger than the rest of us.

  14. One statistical indicator is the nearly-perfect absence of AIDs among LDS in African countries riven with it. This, of course, is attributed to abstinence before marriage and fidelity within it among those Saints.
    (Trying to locate source from a couple years ago).

  15. #10 Dwarik:

    I’m sure it doesn’t happen among the truly devout but how about the more ‘liberal’ mormons. especially in areas where young people just go to church because their parrents/friends make them go. how well do they really follow all the rules.

    Along those lines, I would be interested in knowing how many Mormons try other forms of sexual release prior to marriage, even if they still say they were virgins when they got married. My experience has been that teaching young people “no” on sex itself can cause them to think other things are okay just so long as it technically isn’t coitus: dry sex, oral sex, heavy petting during making out, cyber sex, etc. In my mind there’s a lot more to living the law of chastity than just technically staying a virgin until marriage.

  16. Getting married earlier is definitely part of the equation–but not all of it. Most of the girls I hung out with in high school are still single, faithful LDS (at 28/29 years of age); most, but not all, of the guys got married (but most of us in our late 20s). Granted, that was just our social group, but I think it’s fairly normal for Mormons to marry in their late 20s.
    If we’re dealing with teenage sex (in other words, before it’s appropriate to get married) I think teenage promiscuity is much lower among church members than with the outside world.

  17. Bridget–
    My experience as a teenager in the church during the ’90s–those other forms of sexual release were probably discouraged as much, if not more, than the sexual act itself.
    I’d be seriously surprised if a significant percentage of active LDS teenagers thought that the other stuff (including, by the way, masturbation) was okay.

  18. Jennifer in GA says:

    I would agree with the idea that the emphasis on not dating until you are 16 is a factor in a lot of LDS youth not having premarital sex. It’s only annecdotal, but the majority of my LDS friends who dated before the age of 16 had premarital sex, while those who waited to date didn’t. There were exceptions, of course, but this has been my experience both as a teenager and as a worker in the YW program.

    I also agree with the idea that peer pressure plays a role. My husband grew up in a ward in AZ with a huge youth program. Unfortunately many of the youth in that ward were sexually active (often with each other), with at least three of the YW becoming pregnant out of wedlock. On the other hand, I grew up in FL, where I had a much smaller youth group, and we stood out as “The Mormons” in our school. Everyone knew what Mormons believed, and so there was a lot of pressure *not* to do what everyone else was doing.

    Another factor I want to add (that is much less scientific!) is that Mormons typically have larger families, meaning that the older children often see how much work goes into raising a child. My own mother had a baby my junior year of high school. That right there was the best argument for abstinence until marriage! ;) When you see the ‘consequences’ of sex up close and personal (so to speak), you tend to see that the church’s teaching about the law of chastity makes perfect sense. On the other hand, most of my non-LDS friends had siblings much closer to their own age. Most of them knew nothing about babies, child care, etc. And until some of them faced the consequences for themselves, they saw no point in abstaining.

  19. There are also LDS teachings that help with the LOC and LDS teens’s ability to obey.

    1. No dating until 16. Studies have shown that if one waits until 16 to start dating, sexual experiences are less likely.

    2. Dating in groups.

    3. Dating only members.

  20. I agree that might be a factor…but it didn’t seem to work with Palin.

  21. Sorry. That lost comment referred to being a child in a large family and seeing your mother go through child-raising up close.

  22. This study is one I found interesting, including discussion of some of the things that influence teens to avoid deliquent behavior, and also including some stats, for those who are interested:

    Percentage who have ever done the following activities
    Had sexual relations

    LDS Boys: 10% LDS girls: 17%

    Non-LDS boys: 77% Non-LDS girls: 66%

  23. I think waiting until 16 to date likely helps, but waiting to date until college seems to help more. Anecdotally, it seems the YW I knew who waited until 16 to date, but had serious boyfriends junior and senior year of high school were more likely to have sex than those whose first serious boyfriend came in college. I think this has to do with the greater likelihood of dating a non-Mormon than a Mormon in high school, being less mature at that time, and the prospect of marriage being far off. At any rate, I know more people (non-Mormon and Mormon) who lost their virginity at 16,17,18, than 14 or 15.

  24. Skimming the comments, I don’t see much, if anything, on the spiritual component. Maybe it has something to do with the “gift of the Holy Ghost.” If it’s true that baptized and confirmed Mormons are the only people on earth who enjoy the constant companionship of the HG, that would help explain why young Mormons have such lower rates of sinful sexual activity than those without that gift.

    I wonder why it didn’t work for me. I grew up in a devout Mormon home but rebelled and lost my V at age 17. I wasn’t particularly promiscuous and never cheated on anyone, but I had a handful of partners before marriage, including a couple after my mission that got me disfellowshipped. But I’m grateful that once married, the law of chastity and the HG’s help finally fully kicked in for me and I haven’t followed worldly trends and lapsed in either my previous marriage or what I refer to as my final marriage.

  25. Mormons as a subset of the population are almost unique in the number of people who succeed in remaining chaste until marriage.

    Check this link to see a clip that explains everything …

  26. I don’t think that LDS kids are any better than another group of kids who are taught abstainance.

    I’ve known plenty of LDS kids growing up that had sex before they were married.

    I think some of those kids would have been a little better off if they had been taught about birthcontrol and proper condom use. I bet we could reduce the number of children had out of wedlock that way, this is following the logic that children are better off born within marriage.

  27. I think our relative success in this area is probably not due to just one factor, but I do think that personal spiritual conversion is a big factor. I personally remember as a teenager and young adult having a strong spiritual desire to avoid any unchaste behavior, and I also remember praying for help to resist temptation. My love for the Lord and desire to keep my baptismal covenants was a much bigger motivator than fear or STDs or pregnancy, and certainly bigger than any fear of social consequences. I just really wanted to keep the commandments and live a righteous life, and I wanted a husband who would do the same.

  28. #25: LOL! I guess we can all be grateful that our teens are so socially awkward…

  29. While the figures in #22 seem plausible to me, the study linked appears to have been conducted by BYU researchers and published in Ensign, not an academic journal. Which isn’t to say the figures are necessarily wrong, but that a certain amount of skepticism may be warranted.

    Also, as post #26 suggests, the more relevant comparison is LDS teens with other teens that are taught abstinence — evangelicals, maybe? Not merely the general population, in any case.

    Also, the fact that Mormons get married earlier than the general population may be a relevant factor.

  30. It seems to me that in LDS thought premarital sex is a sin, but out-of-covenant childbearing is felt to be wrong also, which adds another layer of discouragement.
    Anecdotally, I knew an evangelical girl who got pregnant out of wedlock and an LDS girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. The evangelical girl was shamed for having been ‘caught’ having premarital sex, but aside from that her pregnancy, and her baby were nothing but blessings. She and her boyfriend moved in together, with vague plans to get married and raised the baby themselves.
    The LDS girl had a similar shame at being ‘caught’, but then there was a deluge of pressure to get this baby on track to be sealed to somebody. Her only two acceptable options were to marry her boyfriend asap with plans to go to the temple, or give the baby up for adoption to an LDS couple that would have the baby sealed to them.
    So, LDS teens toying with sex are doing so against a background belief that having a baby in those circumstances isn’t just a bad idea, but completely unacceptable.

  31. I can remember as a high school teenager that my ward would have a night each year where they would have the youth come in for meetings that dealt specifically with the issue of chastity. There we were taught very specifically about risky situations that might arise while dating and that we should avoid those situations. They had specific lists of things we shouldn’t do – for example we were told that we shouldn’t date before the age of sixteen, that we shouldn’t stay out too late alone with someone of the opposite sex, that we shouldn’t be lying down on a couch (much less a bed), etc.

    These counsels were probably helpful to me later on. I didn’t date much, hardly at all, in high school. But when I was in the university a lot of those advices were helpful along the way.

  32. It seems to me one of the biggest factors is that our law of chastity goes well beyond no sex. There are limits long before you ever get to the intercourse part. If two teenagers (or two adults) think it’s ok to do everything but the deed, how close can they come without actually having intercourse?
    Mormons have rules like no fondling, no necking, and other guidelines that keep people far away from crossing the line. I’m not sure other abstinence groups have such clear guidelines.

  33. #25 LOL!!!!

  34. Re #22: Two years ago, the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that a little less than 48 percent of students had had sex by the time they finished high-school. This was down from 54.1 percent in the early 1990s. What we should try to find out is whether the amount of sexual activity among LDS youth has declined at the same rate as among the general population. Unfortunately, it appears that the Utah health department is unwilling to collect the basic data and make it available to the Centers for Disease Control. The one exception is data collected by the Utah health department on the proportion of high school students who have been “Forced to Have Sexual Intercourse.” In 2007, this number was almost 12 percent:

  35. My best friend in high school was a very active member in her church (non-denominational Christian). Her church taught their youth that sex before marriage was wrong, but at their standards night, the conclusion they came to (led by their youth pastor) was that anything above the waist was okay, below the waist was off limits. We’re counseledt not to even lay down fully-clothe next to a member of the opposite sex, much less told “go ahead, petting is okay, but stop there. ” I think it’s much easier for us to stop b/c our “okay” point is so much more strict. And if we bypass that “okay” point, then the major guilt and sinful feelings kicks in and we stop there, still quite a ways from actually having sex.

    I also think that our standard of discouraging steady dating until you’re ready to marry helps. Although that can give some Mormon girls a bad rep when they live in places where going on a date is assumed to mean sex will occur and if you’re dating lots of guys…

  36. esodhiambo says:

    I think it is the community expectations, as others have said. Let’s face it, our teachings are the same ones that every other religion teaches, yet our whole community, not just the priests and pastors, but also the basketball coaches and peers, and especially ourselves, actually expect us to live by our standards.

    Incidentally, danithew, that magical annual evening is called Standards Night–glad it served you well.

  37. For me avoiding sexual activities before marriage had very little to do with social pressure. I firmly believed in God and I believed God didn’t want me to break the law of chastity. That’s it. That (with the help of the guard rails we Mormons like to use) got me through 22 years — and certainly not for lack of opportunity. Of course 22 is a pretty young marriage age by some standards but it has worked out nicely for me.

    I suspect there are all kinds of Mormons who stay chaste before marriage for the very same reasons I did.

  38. John Taber says:

    Tim J (#19):

    Are you saying then, that my parents, and parents-in-law, should not have dated? My father and my mother-in-law weren’t members when they met, and started dating, my mother and father-in-law. My mother’s bishop (now in the First Presidency) expressed concern to her about my father having the capacity to be converted but he didn’t tell my mother it was a bad idea to date him in the first place.

    The Holy Ghost wasn’t done working on my father and eventually he (and mother-in-law, seperately) joined the Church. Each couple married not long after, and were sealed in the temple as soon as they could be. Not being born in the Church shouldn’t be the unpardonable sin you make it out to be.

  39. Yeah, standards night. That’s what it was called alright.

  40. I’m not knocking chastity, but I found that as a single person well into my late 30s, I wish I had not been so prudish and self-righteous as a teen and young adult. It’s hard to come to the point where you realize you are no longer a youth, and “For the Strength of Youth” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

    If I marry someone in his forties or fifties, and if he happens to not have been married before–well, frankly, I’m not going to want a prude, either! I’m going to want someone who at least knows what he’s doing, kwim? Prudish males and females–the older we get–become weirder and weirder and less and less dateable (and I AM speaking for myself here).

    I think the church serves teens well in avoiding teen pregnancy, but being too strict can have its disadvantages as well.

  41. Natalie B. says:

    I strongly agree that due to the intense pressure to only date Mormons and the pressure of social norms, many Mormon youth simply don’t have the opportunity to have pre-maritial sex. However, I think that an additional factor is that Young Women’s lessons depict sex as decidedly unappealing. For some LDS women, although not necessarily for LDS men, I think sex is not always seen as desirable – more something to be ashamed of than enjoyed.

    Personally, I would like to see our discussions of chasity expand beyond mere decisions about sex to include broader thinking about respect for others, etc.

  42. Justagal, speaking as another single person a decade older than you, I am grateful that I understand the purposes of the law of chastity, that I have kept my temple covenants, and that I can expect someday to reap the blessings promised for chastity. Anyone who thinks that the sole reason the Lord has commanded us to be chaste is in order to avoid teen pregnancy, or who would value a mate “who knows what he is doing” above a mate who has been chaste, needs to do some thinking, reading, counseling, whatever it takes, to more fully understand the gospel.

  43. Re #7: Another factor we should be talking about is the fact that the average Mormon now waits until his or her late 20s to get married. The 2007 American Community Survey data from Utah shows that only 25 percent of men and 34 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 are married. However, among those age 25 to 29, 63 percent of men and 74 percent of women are married. Spending at least a decade in dating before moving on to marriage will surely test the ability of some to live the law of chastity, especially once they are out of school and removed from Mormon peer groups.

  44. My recollection, and I may be wrong, is that if one controls for religious activity, the avoidance of pre-marital sexuality for active LDS is somewhat better than of those active in many other faiths, but not dramatically so. The sexual behavior of less active LDS, as I recall, is pretty similar to that of less active of other faiths.

    I also recall that the data(distinguishing between active and nonactive) is similar for other behaviors, such as divorce/marriage, drug use/abuse, etc.

    I defer to our social scientists, though, on the accuracy of my recollection.

  45. LDS doctrine gives a better context for WHY the law of chastity (or other commandments) matter, other than “because it’s one of many items on a list of things God doesn’t approve of”.

    Example – the doctrine of premortal existence gives a context for why we have bodies and carries the implication that having a body is a godlike trait. The doctrine of eternal progression gives a context for why choices we make now matter – we know something of what God does and that He wants to prepare us to do those kinds of things. The doctrine of eternal marriage/families frames sexual relationships as one important aspect within a broader context of family life. Etc.

    This contextualizing is not always done well in church teaching. Anecdotally, though, my kids are much more willingly compliant with my requests when they understand the context for why said requests matter, e.g. “GET YOUR TOYS OFF THE STAIRS NOW!” doesn’t work nearly as well as “I’m concerned that with the toys on the stairs someone’s going to slip and get badly hurt; could we go right away and pick them up?”

  46. It looks like Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, written by Mark Regnerus (2007), compiles and analyzes much of the data concerning religiosity and adolescent sexual behavior. I have not read the book, but a skim using the google feature that lets me read some of the book picked out interesting factoids, such as that Jewish adolescents and Mormon adolescents were among the least likely among religious groups to engage in sexual activity. P.123. And there is a huge disparity, not controlling for denomination, in sexual activity among those who participate weekly in church or synagogue (or presumably mosque) from those who do not. P.122

  47. So as the golden hormonal young adult, let me offer my 2cents from the still smoking battlefield. I dated a Mormon for some years. He’s now safely serving a mission, all chastity intact for those who are curious.

    Reasons not to have sex:
    1. He’s Mormon, he can’t have sex. I don’t want to offend anyone by unfeminist generalizing, but I think as women that’s something we’re less likely to push against. Part of it is purely defensive. In a culture that’s holds fairly different standards to male and female sexuality and its expression, I can think of few things worse than being sexually rejected. Not in a “I’m worthless. Nobody likes me” sense, but in a horribly cheap, slutty sense. Part of it is more altruistic. The social and emotional consequences for him would, I’d have to imagine, be pretty undelightful.
    2. Part of me hates that I can’t put in a good word for us non-religious folk, but to be honest, I can see why the religious arguments against premarital sex are the ones that are keeping (at least some) people from engaging in it. Sex doesn’t have to equate to promiscuity and teenage pregnancy. If you don’t believe that extramarital sex is an absolute wrong, but only a relative one – well, they have committed relationships, STD testing, and birth control for that.

    Reasons to have sex:
    1. several.

    Some observations from the side of your battlefield:
    1. As some mentioned above, the lines are drawn in far, far tamer places. If you cross one, you feel horrible and beat yourself up for ‘practically having sex.’ The guilt kicks in much earlier.
    2. The consequences are nice and all, but as some people above mentioned, the consequences more likely than not, aren’t sitting in the foggy cars alongside your youth. Their convictions are though. People make mistakes and silence convictions, so that’s not to say it’s magical and bulletproof. But from personal experience, it’s not what your parents are going to say that stops you but what you yourself think.

  48. An interesting fact is that with most 12-17 year old girls who get pregnant the father is 18 or older.
    In one study I just looked at the average age difference for pregnant 13-15 year old is 4 years. The Average age difference for pregnant 16-19 year olds is 3 years. (For 12 year olds it is 6 years).
    Teen pregnancy isn’t not just a “peer” group thing since the boys or men are significantly older than the girls.
    Many studies link a father’s absence to early sexual activity and pregnancy in girls, especially if the father’s absense is from age five or younger. This seems to be true in all races and incomes.

  49. PTiger:
    I think you hit on the most important area (at least on this subject) where the church needs improvement.
    We need to teach why abstinence is important. And I think we can do that from both a secular and an LDS perspective.

  50. The church’s teaching on chastity was effective for me. I mean, it worked in my life. I do have to say one of the most effective reinforcers, unfortunately, was the untimely teen pregnancy of an LDS girl in a neighboring ward, and her decision to keep the baby. That scared me straight; I had plans for my life that didn’t involve becoming a mother at 15.

    The Church’s goal is to prevent sexual activity before marriage. In public school the emphasis was on preventing pregnancy, while acknowledging the reality of teen sexual activity. I think the Church is right to teach a higher standard than schools have to. But I will say that the emphasis in my teen years on abstinence meant I entered marriage without much of a clue about birth control.

  51. #50 – “I entered marriage without much of a clue about birth control” – that’s why you have a conversation with your non-member friends shortly before you get married so you can learn about your choices. :)

  52. Is standards night a subject in a manual somewhere? How does a ward know it’s supposed to do this? How does a ward decide what to say/teach the kids who participate?

  53. Part of the problem might be that those outside the Church focus on virginity as opposed to chastity.

    You can go a really long way and still be a virgin by Medeval standards. But it only takes one step in the wrong direction to break the law of chastity.

    It shouldn’t be about not having intercourse before marriage, but rather about not doing anything outside of kissing outside of marriage.

    I also think cheap grace has alot to do with it; whereas LDS have anything but cheap grace.

  54. In addition to teaching that teens should avoid pre-marital sex we should also teach them that Sex is God ordained even desirable after marriage. We cannot be all gloom and doom about sex. There needs to be something worth waiting for.

  55. As long as we’re just using anecdotal evidence to support a claim that LDS teens have less sex than the rest of the world, I’ll turn the tables and claim anecdotally that LDS teens are almost no different than their “worldly” peers. Why?

    Just like chastity promises and rings and ceremonies, pressure to commit to chastity through some ritual or covenant only goes so far as the person making the commitment both has faith in the commitment or ritual, and keeps him or herself from situations where he or she could have that commitment challenged. I know lots of LDS young adults who stayed “chaste” only because they didn’t have opportunity to become unchaste with another person. I also know lots who, despite commitments to stay chaste, do not.

    Negative messages about sex taught by the church can’t be any more effective than the negative messages taught by other churches and religious institutions in preventing a hormonally-charged young person from exploring their sexuality. The hard part about sex is that teenagers discover that sex isn’t as evil and wrong as adults make it out to be. The consequences of sexual activity are a different story (emotional consequences, possible pregnancy).

    The huge number of LDS young adults who stop attending church at age 18-21 is testiment to the fact that many LDS teens _don’t_ maintain chastity. Knowing that they would face social ignominy for their actions, they avoid interaction with other LDS young adults and leaders. So when surveys are conducted among LDS young adults about what kept them chaste, these inactive LDS young adults aren’t the ones taking the surveys.

    Also, take a look at the lines outside the bishop’s office in any young adult ward in the church. Talk with the bishop and you’ll find that almost everyone there to talk with him has chastity issues, either with other individuals or through interaction with pornography.

    I recently read a story about Brigham Young wherein he asked all men who had committed adultery to stand during a regional conference he was attending. When the vast majority of men stood up, he thought they had misunderstood the question. When he asked it again, and all the men kept standing, he quickly told them all to sit down, overcome by the prevalence of so much iniquity, despite the Church’s teachings, and the perceived “benefit” of the polygamous lifestyle, which allowed men access to sexual release in much greater frequency than monogamous marriage. (I’m not sure this story is true; any historians know the source of the story, and its validity?)

    My point: LDS people are just as human as their non-LDS counterparts. Their religious devotion helps some stay on the straight and narrow, but there are many who fall. I believe the Lord wants us to be chaste, but understands human frailty better than any of us can. The atonement helps us overcome our weaknesses and return to communion with god. Using chastity as “proof” of God’s influence, or of the virtue of LDS doctrines or programs about chastity over others’ is delusional.

  56. I know lots of LDS young adults who stayed “chaste” only because they didn’t have opportunity to become unchaste with another person.

    I don’t buy this. I assert there is virtually no young woman in the world who can’t get some action if she is looking for it in the right places.

  57. I know lots of LDS young adults who stayed “chaste” only because they didn’t have opportunity to become unchaste with another person.

    Really? By definition, these hypothetical young adults’ virtue was untested. That every “untested” young adult — if there really are such — would have succumbed is a claim that can’t be taken seriously.

    Neither can your story about Brigham Young.

  58. John Mansfied says:

    We teach our youth a large package of standards, for instance telling them to avoid inappropriate music and movies, and the adults in their lives act like these are things that matter for everyone, not just kids. Every young man knows that even lusting in his heart is a wrong step. (There is nothing so absurd sounding as the typical TV sit-com episode, created by people who don’t believe in chastity, about how teenagers should postpone sex “until they are ready.”)

  59. Margaret Young says:

    I wonder what difference it makes if the child grows up in Utah or “among the gentiles.” The home environment makes a big difference, of course. I would guess that most families trying to live LDS values monitor which TV shows get watched, which computer sites have access, etc. Because we’re so surrounded by suggestions that only weird kids wait until their married, we Mormons (and probably most good parents regardless of religion) use all sorts of filters. The shame game we play is undeniable, but brings a child to a superficial sense of morality: “Don’t do this because it’s so embarrrassing if you’re caught.” All the commandments are founded in love. Good parents will let their children know that intimacy is a wonderful thing, and will provide a context which frames it naturally within marriage.

  60. Justagal says:

    I really appreciate Pedro’s comments in #53, and feel he did a better job at explaining what I was trying to get at.

    I appreciate–as per Ardis Parshall’s comments–that not all older singles feel this way. Some absolutely do have incredible resolve and would never break the law of chastity to any degree whatsoever.

    However, when the law of chastity includes–as it does–no touching of anyone’s body for physical pleasure including one’s own, I don’t think I’m that far-fetched to question a man in his late 30s, 40s, 50s, who has never married and claims to always have “kept the law of chastity”. I cannot imagine an honest man who claims to have never lusted in his heart (i.e. never even masturbated) and is somehow ready to date steadily or marry, at this advanced age. Maybe they are the 1% who aren’t lying about it. Yeah, that’s it.

  61. As humbly as I can say this, my kids want to live the Law of Chastity largely because they want the kind of marriage my wife and I have – including the flirtation and the grinning “look away for a minute if you don’t want to see me kiss your mother” and other examples that our love for each other is more than “just” spiritual. They know we are gloriously happy; they know we believe we will be together eternally; they know we dated for over two years before I left on my mission – but that we didn’t cross any serious lines specifically because we both wanted me to serve a mission. They understand the WHY in our lives, and they translate that why into their lives.

    There’s no guarantee that it will take with all six of them, especially if they remain single far into their twenties or beyond, but it worked for my oldest son and his non-member girlfriend. They both want him to serve a mission, and that stopped them when they might have decided not to stop. He now has completed the paperwork and interviews and is waiting to learn where he’s going.

    If he hadn’t had that goal that depended on being sexually chaste, I’m not sure how everything would have turned out – and it obviously helped tremendously to have a girlfriend who supports his standards.

  62. John Taber says:

    danithew #52:

    If you want examples of how not to do standards night, check out the thread titled “Youth fireside or hypnotic memory?” Both the examples I gave were from a Standards Night.


    One indicator in support of Mark’s statement that LDS actually do obey the law of chastity is that Utah has the lowest birthrate to unwed mothers in the nation despite having the highest birthrate in general in the nation.

  64. Another less Utah centric study has the following abstract:

    Empirically investigates the relationship between pornography & premarital sexual activity in conjunction with a number of other independent variables, in a sample of 1,393 Mormon (LDS-Latter Day Saints) teenagers living along the East coast of the US. Logistic regression analysis indicates that exposure to pornography was strongly related to premarital sex, a relationship that persisted even when peer influence, family structure, religiosity, gender, & age were controlled. Teens who reported that they had moderate exposure to pornography (1 to 24 exposures) were 2.6 times more likely to have engaged in sex compared to those reporting no exposure, while teens who reported that they had been exposed to a higher amount of pornography were 5.7 times more likely to have engaged in sex as those with no exposure. Gender, peer influence, private religiosity, & relationship with mother were also significantly related to teenage sex

    [Harris, Mark Allen, Cardell K. Jacobson, and Bruce A. Chadwick. 1995. “Pornography and Premarital Sexual Activity among Lds Teenagers.]

  65. Tim Heaton is probably the best source for stats on this:

    He said

    “…nationally, in three different surveys, 80% of the population has pre-marital sex by the time they turn twenty. For LDS people the numbers range from 50 to 60 percent. So, that’s well below the national rate but much higher than many people would like them to be.”

  66. I read to comment 16 seriously, and skimmed to comment 24 briefly, so I apologize if what I write has already been addressed.

    I think I can bring a cultural Mormon/ex-mormon experience here.

    With regard to Chris’s comment in 24, I can’t say I know too much about how the Holy Ghost affects this at all or what the spiritual component is, because I really don’t believe in that part.

    what I do think, and what I will agree with the other authors who have spoken about it, is that the LDS church has a tremendous cultural process. I think it’s pretty obvious that Mormonism is a culture as much as (or moreso than) it is a religion.

    So like others said, being around Mormons will have a role. Being taught from early on will influence your worldview, so that has a role. I think one of the bigger factors is that not only does the church *believe* in chastity, but it also believes in the importance of works to back up faith. Consider with the other Christian denominations that are might be faith-only…they can preach chastity, but they don’t have a culture whereby one shows his faith with his works. Whereas in the church, if you’re not doing the right stuff, then that will have consequences (temple recommend, worthiness for mission, cultural stigma).

    So, really, the question is…who has Mormonism as a cultural identity and who does not? Is the church particularly good at raising its members with worldviews conducive to chastity? I think that, even if you do not believe at all in the spirituality of the church, from a merely cultural or sociological perspective, the church is very good at this. Sometimes to detriment but sometimes to benefit.

  67. Justagal says:

    Ray, I have been contemplating your comment, and I have some questions for you about why you believe your kids connect your relationship with your wife to their own resolve to be chaste. I find this idea fascinating.

    1. Do you believe that your children think that the way to a happy marriage is rooted in abstaining from sex before marriage?

    2. How do your children reconcile this with happy marriages that were not formed that way, or unhappy ones that were?

    3. More importantly, how do children know whether or not their parents had sex before marriage?

    4. Since masturbation is also prohibited, isn’t it true that almost no-one keeps the law of chastity?

  68. However, when the law of chastity includes–as it does–no touching of anyone’s body for physical pleasure including one’s own, I don’t think I’m that far-fetched to question a man in his late 30s, 40s, 50s, who has never married and claims to always have “kept the law of chastity”.

    What a bizarre comment. Your definition of the law of chastity isn’t at all standard. Hand-holding, an arm around the back or a head leaning on a shoulder, kissing, hugging, many kinds of caresses, all of those are extremely pleasurable and do, if not carried to extremes, fall comfortably within the law of chastity and demonstrate a very healthy and normal interest in the opposite sex. That you can’t imagine such a person — man or woman — is a defect in your imagination and experience, not evidence that such people don’t exist.

    There are many reasons why people don’t marry as young as the norm, and sexual dysfunction doesn’t play a part in the lives of all or perhaps even many of us. Maybe we are weird, or awkward or shy or inexperienced, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have normal sexual urges, haven’t had opportunities, or that are lying about having kept the law of chastity. It means that we have self control and value our covenants more than we value dead-end pleasurable but illicit experiences.

    Why we value our covenants, and how we developed that self control, are the points of the original post. I can’t offer any reasons that haven’t already been offered. I only insist that such is the case, whether you can imagine it or not.

  69. Melanie2 says:

    Ardis: Thanks for all of your comments on this thread. I couldn’t agree more.

    Justagal: Ardis is not the only one. There are many of us who lead fulfilling, happy lives while keeping covenants strictly. Commandments don’t go out of style as we age–but fortunately, neither do promised blessings!

  70. #67 – Justagal, here goes:

    Q1. Do you believe that your children think that the way to a happy marriage is rooted in abstaining from sex before marriage?

    A1. We have taught them that happy marriage is, more than anything else, a product of deep respect, love and commitment – and that a big part of true respect, love and commitment is the willingness to sacrifice personal desires for the good of the marriage. Abstaining from pre-marital sex fits this broad standard, and we have taught them that directly and openly and explicitly.

    Q2. How do your children reconcile this with happy marriages that were not formed that way, or unhappy ones that were?

    A2. We have taught them that there are exceptions to every rule, and we also have taught them that not everyone has the same beliefs and standards that we do. Obviously, people who follow different standards can have happy marriages despite those standards, but it’s much more of a crapshoot the looser the standards are – and I have shared the stats that prove it. (Like the studies that show a 49% divorce rate for those who co-habitate prior to marrying – one of the highest rates measured for any category.)

    Q3. More importantly, how do children know whether or not their parents had sex before marriage?

    A3. They trust that we aren’t lying when we tell them. They know I served a mission and that we married in the temple, and they trust that we weren’t lying then, either.

    Q4. Since masturbation is also prohibited, isn’t it true that almost no-one keeps the law of chastity?

    A4. First, I think you’d be surprised at the actual numbers, especially among young women. I’m not saying the rate is low, but it’s nowhere near “almost no-one”.

    Second, I’ve never heard a temple recommend interview that asks specifically about masturbation, and I’m not going to delve into it with anyone when I discuss the Law of Chastity – unless there is evidence that there is an addictive habit, which does happen sometimes. Otherwise, I view it as the speed limit of gospel commandments – posted regularly on easily visible signs but enforced only in extreme cases of breaking it in obvious excess of everyone else driving down the road. That’s good enough for me.

  71. Justagal says:

    Thanks for your answers, Ray. They were very helpful. I agree that demonstrating and maintaining a healthy marriage can create an incentive for others to desire and emulate it. My concern is that so doing might then create the impression that there is some formula involved: don’t do this, do that, do this, do more of this, and you’ll one day be married with three children and live eternally with your family–and sex is the bargaining chip. The hard truth is that not everyone marries. Some who don’t marry are better at controlling their sex drives than others. Most people eventually find channels to divert or release their sexual energy. Marriage is not a reward for righteousness or sexual restraint.

    You mention that you’ve never heard a TR interview that asks specifically about masturbation. Does a TR interview ever ask for specifics about the law of chastity? When did the TR interview become the touchstone for what is/what isn’t involved in the law of chastity? The question is very simply, “Do you keep the law of chastity?”Isn’t it clear that masturbation (particularly for a single person) is against the law of chastity? And if it isn’t any longer, when did it now become okay?

    And if it isn’t okay–great! The leadership should clearly spell this out at conference time (that it’s no longer verboten for unmarrieds). They should excise all references to masturbation from YW/YM manuals, New Eras, talks, etc. (although admittedly in the last few decades they increasingly use euphemisms, but it’s obviously there, and they obviously consider masturbation to be against the law of chastity.) Then everyone would be on the same page.

    Just because something is only routinely “enforced only in extreme cases of breaking it” (ouch!) that doesn’t mean it’s still not wrong, does it? There’s the irony: the only safe, private, completely innocuous outlet for sexual expression for gay and straight singles is a sin.

  72. Justagal says:

    Ardis, of course by “touch”, I meant sensual touch. I have heard this definition many times before. I don’t consider it bizarre as you seem to. In fact:

    “Before marriage, do not do anything to arouse the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage. Do
    not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another
    person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not allow anyone to do that with you. Do not arouse those emotions in
    your own body…Do not participate in talk or activities that arouse sexual feelings” (For the Strength of Youth, 27).

    Is the above not commonly understood to be the law of chastity with regard to unmarried people, or just the youth?

    Once again: if I met a man in his 30s, 50s, or 40s who claimed to be ready for marriage and had not at least participated in passionate kissing or aroused emotions in his own body–not even once in his life up to that point, I would certainly wonder! That’s all I’m saying.

  73. Justagal, I’m not going to turn this thread into a debate over masturbation. There are plenty of those over at FMH, if you really want to have that discussion. :)

    As I said, I teach my children the standards and the reasons for them. We talk openly and honestly about sex and chastity in our house – without getting preachy or demanding or harsh or condemning, and that helps as much as anything, imo. My kids know I expect them to be chaste, but they also know that my wife and I use (and are grateful for) contraception. (I joke that we’d be the poster family for Planned Parenthood if planning births perfectly was their only agenda. We’ve had six kids, and every one of them was born pretty much exactly when we planned on the birth – and our kids know that and why.)

    The conversations are no big deal in our house. It’s just sex, and sex is just a normal part of life that should be controlled just like any other natural urge. Granted, it’s a wonderful one, but talking about it is no big deal.

  74. Justagal, your earlier definition of chastity was “no touching for physical pleasure,” which is quite different from the definition you quote now of “arousing powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage.” Your first definition most certainly is not a requirement of the law of chastity; the second is.

    I don’t equate all physical pleasure with sexual pleasure, or at least with sexual-pleasure-beyond-the-bounds-of-chastity (i.e., those which “must be expressed only in marriage”). I mean, really, can’t you eat a chocolate without devouring all the candy in the candy store? Why is it a “wonder” that someone might enjoy an acceptable level of intimacy without breaking the law of chastity? I listed a few activities that, unless carried to unacceptable extremes, fall well within the law of chastity.

    I’m not entirely sure what you “wonder” about people of my age who are chaste. That we are gay? That we are incapable of physical response? That we are lying? That we cannot engage in romantic behavior while still having the self-control to stop before lines are crossed?

  75. omoplata says:

    The main reason LDS are more successful with chastity is that for LDS, it isn’t a last minute add-on in the teen years. Children are taught to live gospel principles from the very start. They often have over a decade of gospel preparation by the time they become teenagers. And being a Mormon doesn’t mean just going to church on Sundays. Living the gospel is demanding and requires sacrifice, which demands and sacrifice forges the faith necessary to meet those demands (-JS).

    2nd, living the gospel reminds us that we *are* different from the rest of society. Besides chastity, we also abstain from alcohol and coffee. We fast once a month. We don’t date until 16, and even then there are strict rules. We avoid the edge of the sexual cliff – no petting, etc. Its easier to abstain from sex when we exercise discipline in all other areas of our lives. Sex is merely one of many appetites we attempt to master.

    But the abstinence only programs of the world are too little, too late, mere last minute add-ons of moral teaching at time when such teaching should already have been cemented in place.

  76. Justagal says:

    Ardis, please forgive me if I hit a nerve. That was not my intention. Each of us has different needs and responses to those needs, regardless of our common religious imperatives.

    I did not include single WOMEN in my statement about older single men who had never passionately kissed another person or self-pleasured.

    I also remember, as a teen, reading that President Kimball believed chaste kisses were to be the kind a mother gave her son. If that was all my suitor were interested in, I definitely would run away. You might not, but I would.

    For me, marrying a man with no prior sexual experience (even with himself!) is not optimal. I would wonder if we would be well matched, or if he had emotional, mental, sexual, or psychological problems.

    Your mileage obviously varies. Do what works for you.

  77. Thanks for that kind permission, Justagal. I don’t believe in a double standard. Neither does the church.

  78. FWIW, the study I linked to also appears to have been printed in some form in a professional journal as well:

    See Bruce A. Chadwick and Brent L. Top, “Religiosity and Delinquence among LDS Adolescents,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32/1 (1993): 51-67.

  79. I also remember, as a teen, reading that President Kimball believed chaste kisses were to be the kind a mother gave her son. If that was all my suitor were interested in, I definitely would run away. You might not, but I would.

    I think, actually, that too many people will push the lines of chastity without giving it much thought. I wish more teens and young adults understood the wisdom of the counsel that is given by our leaders today, which is consistent in spirit, imo, to what Pres. Kimball said. For example:

    “Determine now that you will never do anything outside of marriage to arouse the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage. Do not arouse those emotions in another person’s body or in your own body.”

    I think too many young people think chastity is all about just avoiding sexual intercourse, about just keeping the letter of the law, rather than also about guarding and respecting the emotions that are tied to sexual intimacy. I know it can be a hard thing to teach in a way (we don’t want youth feeling guilty for feelings that are natural) but we can teach them not to *feed* those emotions by their actions and choices.

    Having been single myself for nearly a decade of my life, I know how hard it can be to hold strictly to these standards. But in the end, I believe they are correct principles to teach, and that we do our youth a disservice if we suggest that it’s better to ‘get some experience’ with arousing sexual feelings before marriage, or that there are ‘acceptable’ ways to do that. IMO, that is part of what gets people in trouble. They start with what they think is ‘acceptable’ and then lose their desire to hold to a line. (We are designed to not want to hold back. We ought to respect those powerful emotions more than we do, imo.)

    The standard is to guard those emotions as sacred and save them for the marriage experience. Hard line to hold? Yep. But count me as one who was *grateful* to marry someone who felt strongly about these standards.

  80. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    I think that, anecdotally, we have built a better hedge about the law as an LDS church when it comes to chastity.

    Here is how my teenage years will unfold as an LDS male if I am following, if not the doctrinally prescribed plan, at least the culturally default model:

    Age 12: Begin listening to priesthood session which will discourage me from taking any action that I am even tempted with as yet.

    Age 12-16: Constant reminders regarding proper dating age, respect for women, no to porn, ect.

    Age 16: Finally able to date, though pairing off still discouraged. Probably somewhere between 10-12 talks/lessons/firesides on chastity by this time, easy.

    Age 16-18: Daily seminary, surviving last years of HS by avoiding alchohol.

    About age 18 off to church school with ecclesiastical endorsement and generally very supportive and positive peer group.

    Age 19-21: Temple endowment/covenants. Mission, which is generally held to be a chaste experience.

    Age 21+: Back in the saddle with a little more maturity, and hopefully with temple marriage in mind.

    I know, this isn’t the universal script here, but OTOH, I am not tacking on all of the standard’s nights and EFYs that are out there to be found. It is a pretty realistic and basic format for how very many LDS teens make it more or less cleanly to adulthood.

  81. I have to echo what Christopher (Comment #24) said because I think that he hit the nail on the head.

    As a youth that grew up LDS, but not in a predominantly LDS community, I dated more than one person who was not LDS. I’m not sure that I’d like to repeat the practice, but it did happen when I was a teenager. I tried to date people that had my same standards (ie – no drinking, smoking, etc.) But, invariably, it was difficult to date some young men because they wanted to have sex.

    What kept me from crossing that line? THE HOLY GHOST. Even though my testimony then isn’t as strong as it is now, I did have the spirit with me, and I wanted to do what was right. I went to seminary, church, and mutual. I knew that it was wrong for me to cross that line – because God had commanded it. I knew that it would drive the Holy Ghost away. I had driven the Spirit away before, and I didn’t want to do it again.

    And when I went on dates, I’d find myself humming “Scripture power…keeps me safe from sin…” (good old primary). I know that it was the Spirit that tried to warn me, and when I followed His promptings I was blessed and my testimony strengthen.

    We can look at any sociological point of the LDS church, but it will not every explain the power of the Gift of the Holy Ghost in our lives.

  82. 81 –
    Love it. So well said.

  83. anonymous says:

    My daughter, who is single and in her early 20s living in Salt Lake City, tells me that she has had several friends who were sexually active with their fiancees while they planning a temple wedding. (FWIW, she finds that appalling — not the premarital sex but lying about it.) One has to wonder how common that is and how much it is possible to depend on any statistics.

    I know one couple who were planning a temple wedding until she got pregnant. Then her father “made” them get married (outside the temple, of course.) Surprisingly to me, they ended up having a long-lasting marriage and are active in the church.

    That said, I didn’t find premarital abstinence all that difficult, and neither have my two adult children to this point. It’s partly a matter of firmly deciding what you want out of life and what’s important, and then getting together with someone who shares the same values. If you don’t do that, I suspect, it would be very difficult for most. The decision has to be an internal one, not imposed from the outside.

  84. helenharman says:

    I think chastity discussions benefit from recognizing that unchastity is more than just losing one’s virginity. To Justagal’s point, most adults passionately kiss or masturbate before marriage, especially if they marry later than their teens or early 20s. Repentance, forgiveness, and realism go a long way towards making sure that healthy, rational behavior can still occur even when the law of chastity is broken, even in a minor way.

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